1. What is President Barack Obamas most important objective?
Mitt Romney began his convention in Tampa, Fla. last week with a long to-do list. Obamas is shorter but no less daunting. This is not Denver 2008. There probably wont be any Greek columns when he speaks in the stadium Thursday night. The presidents task, after almost four years in office, will be to persuade voters disappointed by what has happened that he knows how to make the next term better than the first.
There are some obvious objectives. Hell want to keep forcing the election to be a choice and not just a referendum on his record. Hell want his convention to draw sharp contrasts with Romney. But some Democrats say the Obama campaign has already done a good job of that during the summer. They believe that its time for Obama to focus on the future.
Republicans see Obama in a tough spot. They argue that voters believe that Obama over-promised in 2008 and didnt deliver. As GOP strategist Chris Henick put it, Obama has fatigued the bully pulpit and needs to change that. Other Republicans say he has to answer the question posed by Paul Ryan, the GOP vice-presidential nominee, at the Tampa convention: Without a change in leadership, why will families be better off in the next four years?
Obama has accomplishments to point to: The auto bailout has helped turn around the auto industry. Hes never sold his health-care program, but he can try to show how things will be better as that law continues to take effect. He made the decision to send a SEAL team to kill Osama bin Laden. But he also has to persuade voters that everything he did has helped set the foundation for a true recovery.
2. How can Obama articulate a convincing defense of his economic record?
The defense will start by stating the obvious: that Obama inherited a terrible economic situation, so bad that a majority of Americans still blame the current state of the economy on former president George W. Bush. But at the Republican convention in Tampa, Bushs brother Jeb called out the president, challenging him to stop blaming his predecessor and start taking responsibility.
Obama will be defending a record that has kept unemployment above 8 percent for 42 consecutive months. Long-term unemployment is having a corrosive effect on the lives of many Americans. Although there are some bright spots the housing sector has shown signs of life recently voters arent convinced that a real recovery has taken hold.
Its often been said that claiming things could have been worse is hardly an effective message, but Obamas team has often made that argument. Had Obama not done what he did, they say, the country could have plunged into a depression. But what hurts Obama now is the persistence of high unemployment and slow growth.
Explaining why is not going to be easy. Instead, a number of Democrats say, this is why Obama must draw a contrast with Romney. Tad Devine, a top adviser in the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, suggested that Obama steal a line from Ronald Reagan and say as the Gipper did, Our opponents began this campaign hoping that America has a poor memory. Well, lets take them on a little stroll down memory lane. Of course, Reagan was dealing with a recovery with far higher growth rates than those of today.
One top Democratic strategist said, His most convincing defense of his economic record is contrast and comparison with the other sides proposals moving forward. If he is defending his record, he is not doing what he needs to do.
3. Will Bill Clinton overshadow everyone else?
If you dont know the answer to this question, you dont know Bill Clinton. The former president will overshadow everything and everyone at least for the brief time he is on stage in Charlotte. But he is savvy enough to know that he is there in a supporting role to help win Obamas reelection. He wont try to overshadow the president, but hell take up plenty of space.
One measure of the potential impact of Clintons speech is the fact that his successor, George W. Bush, wasnt ever on the stage in Tampa. Bush would be of no help to Romney. Clinton is revered by Democrats and still able to appeal to independents.
When Obama has asked him, Clinton has delivered a more effective defense of the presidents record than virtually anyone else, including at times the president. They once were rivals, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was running for president, but theyve found reasons to become allies. Clinton was accused of undermining Obama when he praised Romneys business record earlier this year, but theres no doubt that he will have Obamas back in Charlotte.
He embodies something Obama needs to get across to people, an economic success story of a Democratic president. Republicans argue that some of Clintons chief accomplishments welfare reform and a balanced budget appealed to the middle of the electorate, while Obamas agenda has appealed only to his base.
Clintons critique of the Republican agenda will be critical in helping persuade skeptical voters that Obama is still a better bet for the next four years than Romney. But overshadow the president? Obama is no slouch when it comes to big speeches. However Clinton performs, the big speech in Charlotte will still be Obamas on Thursday night.
4. Will Vice President Joe Biden lead the attacks on Mitt Romney?
It would be a surprise if he didnt attack, given the fact that vice presidents are generally assigned that role. But he wont be the only one. Given what the Obama campaign has been doing all summer, attacks likely will start with the opening night program Tuesday and carry through to Thursday night.
As one Democrat said, if the Democrats wait for Biden on Thursday to lead the attacks, they will have wasted the first two nights. Republicans Whit Ayres and Jon McHenry predict that every speaker, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, will attack Romney, which is probably a mistake.
Biden obviously has another role and its one reason he was picked to be on the ticket in 2008. He speaks to a constituency that long has been resistant to the president: white working-class voters. Biden speaks their language and will try again to be a validator for Obama with these voters.
The vice president, of course, can be an unguided missile, thought its doubtful hell be given the kind of freedom that the Romney campaign gave to Clint Eastwood in Tampa to ad lib his way through his assigned time. Biden can speak extemporaneously and at length about a lot of subjects, but the stakes are high enough for Obamas reelection and Bidens political standing that hell likely see this as a time to choose his sharp words carefully.
5. What is Michelle Obamas role at the convention?
The first lady was a big star in Denver four years ago and remains widely admired. Like Ann Romney, she can help remind people of Obama as a husband and father and warm up someone who can seem cool and distant.
The presidents role is to present a high-altitude vision for the country, said Democratic strategist Nathan Daschle. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, can connect us on an emotional level to the president. Barack Obama is academic and a bit removed. This is a weakness as much as its a strength. Michelle Obama is much warmer and can provide that level of emotional connection we dont get from the president.
Michelle Obama can help in other ways. With the Obama campaign trying to make the gender gap as big as possible, she can counter appeals to women at the Republican convention by some of the female speakers, though Ann Romney will be off limits.
The first lady can also play a big role in helping to energize the base. She is a keeper of the 2008 flame. Democrats suffer from a potential enthusiasm gap, which is just one of the ways in which 2012 is different from 2008. Whatever Michelle Obama can do to try to get Democrats once again fired up and ready to go will be a measure of the success of her speech.
6. What is Obamas message for white working-class voters or should he not worry about them?
Obama cant afford to ignore or take for granted any voters. We cant write off any constituency, certainly not one that large, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. We wont win those voters, but there is a difference between losing by 20 points and losing by 40 points. The message is simple: Mitt Romney is a symbol of everything thats wrong with our economy.
Democrats have been losing white working-class voters for years, and they seem particularly resistant to Obamas appeals. He struggled with them in many of the industrial-state primaries against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008. He lost them in the general election, and he has been trailing significantly among these voters in polls all spring and summer.
But by winning big majorities of African Americans, Latinos, younger single women and very well-educated voters, Obama can afford to lose the white working-class vote. He just cant get wiped out with that constituency.
To prevent further erosion, the president needs to make his case that, whatever these voters may think of him, Romney would be worse. Its a classic class-warfare message wrapped in the rhetoric of moving forward as the one to rebuild the economy.
By attacking Romney all summer for his record at Bain Capital, the Obama campaign is trying turn the Republican nominee into the guy who fires people. But Obama needs to do more than just try to disqualify Romney. Hell be on the offensive, but will he have a credible message to struggling middle-class voters?
7. Will attacks or positive messaging persuade undecided voters to support Obama?
Obamas campaign has been on the attack all summer in its advertising, its messages of the day, its conference calls and its tweets in an effort to disqualify Romney as an alternative. Republicans say thats because Obama cant defend his economic record and has nothing of note to be positive about.
Voters say they dislike negative ads but studies show that people process the information in those commercials quickly and often get valuable information from them. Voters dislike the worst of the ads they see, particularly those that are too personal. But contrast ads can do more to move voters than personal attacks or purely positive ads.
Still, undecided independent voters are turned off by the discord in Washington and the negative tone of politics generally. Obama has been effective in drawing contrasts with what Romney has advocated, but cant risk losing his advantage on likability. As one Democrat put it, His largest asset four years ago was being thought of above politics and truly post-partisan. He needs to recapture some of that notion and leave the hard-hitting stuff to others.
8. Who will be jockeying in Charlotte for attention for 2016?
Because this is Obamas last campaign, win or lose, one of the subthemes of the convention in Charlotte will be the speculation about who will lead the party four years from now.
In Tampa, there was considerable focus on the rising generation of Republicans who, if Romney loses, will be competing for their partys nomination in 2016. Republicans will have a large cast of younger leaders from which to choose.
Democrats have a different dynamic. The conversation in Charlotte will start with questions about two members of the administration: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Biden.
Clinton has said she will leave her post at the end of the year and has given no indication that she wants to run for president again. But shell be under tremendous pressure to do so. Biden has wanted to be president since he first ran in 1988. Until he says he wont run, he, too, could block some younger Democrats.
If neither of them decides to run, then the list could be long: governors, senators, other members of the Cabinet, even Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, if his keynote address lights up the arena the way Obamas did in Boston eight years ago.
Charlotte will be one-stop shopping for the operatives, activists, donors and other core players that will help some of these potential candidates establish themselves and get traction in the invisible primary that begins on November 7th, Democratic strategist Michael Feldman said.